BFC takes on Altyn Asyr FK in AFC cup semis

In an ecosystem notorious for constant managerial and player upheavals, Bengaluru FC (BFC) represents continuity.

Last year, BFC was eliminated in the inter-zonal playoff final by a similar Central Asian side, Tajikistan’s Istiklol FC. (File Photo)   -  Bengaluru FC

In an ecosystem notorious for constant managerial and player upheavals, Bengaluru FC (BFC) represents continuity. It can be seen in the strong core of players it has always sought to retain with the most recent example being that of Miku, the Venezuelan striker who starred with 20 goals in 2017-18, staying put despite intense transfer speculation.

Another of those stabilising factors is the newly-appointed coach, Carles Cuadrat, who was the trusted aide to BFC’s coach for the last two years, Albert Roca. It will be under the Catalan’s stewardship that the club will open its 2018-19 campaign with the first leg of the AFC Cup inter-zonal semifinal against Turkmenistan’s Altyn Asyr FK at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Wednesday.

“There isn't much difference in the playing styles [compared to Roca’s],” said skipper Sunil Chhetri. “He was an important member in shaping the way we played under Roca. Of course he has some unique ideas, but the philosophy is progressive. We are not learning something completely new. We’re just going to the next level.”

To gauge this, Altyn Asyr offers an interesting test. The team may be making its debut in the knockout round of the continental competition but is a four-time defending champion of its domestic league and is well-placed for a fifth, halfway into the season. It has the best offensive record back home, scoring 31 goals from 16 games.

Last year, BFC was eliminated in the inter-zonal playoff final by a similar Central Asian side, Tajikistan’s Istiklol FC. In 2016, it succumbed to West Asian outfit Air Force Club, which played a kind of football BFC had never encountered before.

Cuadrat was the assistant coach then and probably sensed what needed to be done. This resulted in a pre-season tour of Spain this time around, where matches against strong ‘B’ teams of Villarreal and Barcelona were organised.

“The games we had in Spain were tough with not a lot of chances to score,” said Cuadrat. “If you go back to last year [Istiklol], it was tough. One goal would change everything. It is very difficult to play those kind of games. We will try and do our best now.”

“At home, we back ourselves against anybody,” said Chhetri, perhaps alluding to the fact that BFC has been unbeaten in 14 AFC Cup games at home, stretching back to March 2016. “We have to be careful and not concede an away goal. But it won’t be only about not conceding. We are generally dominant at home and a lot of homework has been done.”

'The biggest thing we learnt is to defend as a team'

Bengaluru FC is generally regarded as a free-flowing side specialising in pass-and-move football, but one of the objectives behind the pre-season tour of Spain was to toughen the players up. “I think the biggest thing we learnt is to defend as a team,” said skipper Sunil Chhetri. “There were lot of voices, lot of talking. [Harmanjhot] Khabra, Gurpreet [Singh Sandhu], Rino [Anto], Eric [Paartalu]… the way they talked to each other, making sure we all came back and defended.”

“We don’t do that here generally. We are a very attacking side. But when we played Villarreal B, Barca B, we had to work out an entirely different way. For 90 minutes we had to run behind the ball. For Miku not to touch the ball for 30 minutes and instead mark the opposite No.6…These experiences will come in handy when we go forward in this tournament {AFC Cup], especially when we play away.”

It was also crucial as an exercise in team bonding, Chhetri felt. “We had a lot of new players and it was important to have good challenges. Mind you we had very very tough challenges. It is not often that you play teams like the one we played.”

The last season was a long drawn one for Chhetri with just a month’s break between the Intercontinental Cup and the pre-season tour. But the 34-year-old put a positive spin to it. “I like it. One month is enough for me. I don't like long breaks because you kind of start missing football. In fact even in that one month break I was involved with football [World Cup pundit]. I am happy to be back here and training.” -- N. Sudarshan